A quick glance and you’ll notice a lot of similarities between the new Netflix Original, Wu Assassins, and old Netflix Original, Iron Fist. Both are goofy shows about chosen ones out to stop bad guys with their fists. Both are about men facing a turning point in their personal lives. Both are set in coastal American cities. Both include a brother/sister duo who love the protagonist but might be toxic for them. Both feature Lewis Tan being very charming. But in Wu Assassins, everyone can actually fight.
The new show, from long-time producer Tony Krantz (Dracula, 24) and John Wirth (Hell on Wheels, The Cape) is about a man named Kai Jin (The Raid’s Iko Uwais) charged with a mystical mission to become the Wu Assassin and stop the evil spirits who have partnered with evil men to do bad things. Being the Wu Assassin makes Kai stronger and faster and more durable than the average person, but it also means he periodically merges with a long-dead monk, played by Double Dragon’s Mark Dacascos.
The body-switching stuff… does not make sense.
Netflix made the first three episodes available ahead of the August 9 premiere and I watched them, partially in the hopes of understanding why there is body switching stuff to begin with. (I still don’t know.)
Now you might think this makes sense! Dacascos is a super awesome ghost monk who exists so someone can handle all the intricate and brutal fight scenes. But the problem is the unassuming guy turned Wu Assassin is played by Iko Uwais, and he is a faster, more competent fighter than about 99.9 per cent of the population. As his fists and elbows play a man’s rib cage like a xylophone the camera struggles to keep up — his arms a blur on the screen.
He fights as the best dancers dance, and he and the rest of the cast are why you watch. Because, again, the plot doesn’t make a ton of sense. Kai’s been imbued with powers and while we see him fighting characters on screen, we see Dacascos’s monk most of the time. Sometimes he disappears into a spirit world to be guided by a mystical young woman monk named Ying Ying (played by Celia Au).
When not committing impressive feats of physical prowess or learning about his powers in a world rendered in 1990s syndicated TV CGI, Kai is splitting his time between his food truck or his friends’ restaurant (though there is one scene where he cathartically screams as he furiously and precisely chops vegetables). His friends are brother and sister Tommy (Laurence Kao) and Jenny Wah (Li Jun Li). Jenny is the smart one with an MBA and a hint of chemistry with Kai. Tommy is the former drug addict trying to be better while also escaping his long-time ties to the Triads.
Besides being Kai’s ties to his humanity, they’re also the two characters with the least fight scenes (and the few they have don’t go super well for them). The rest of the cast is full of trained martial artists (Lewis Tan, Katheryn Winnick, JuJu Chan) or people who can fake it really really well (Byron Mann and, presumably, Summer Glau, whose character didn’t appear in the first three episodes). Which again means the fights are the star of the show, and they’re all really good!
The camera usually knows when to stay on the action and when to cut away. It’s not quite a Jackie Chan film when he was in his prime, or even Uwais’ breakthrough, The Raid, but they’re still very good. In fact, at least two of them had me shouting at their impeccable sense of time, and the marriage of the brutality (these fights are very brutal) and skill.
Which brings me back to Iron Fist, another show that was supposed to be about a young man with a mystical destiny who fights a lot. Wu Assassins is in every way a better show. The acting is better (though by no means stellar), the action is better, and man, the storyline is just so much goofier in a fun way. I feel like if Wu Assassins ever had a huge dragon that Kai would need to fight we would actually get to see the fight.
Wu Assassin was created by two white men also elected to hire a primarily Asian and Asian American cast. Given the general erasure of Asians (and Asian Americans in particular) in American film and TV this is a wonderful move and sets it far apart from other shows and movies that have inspired it (Big Trouble in Little China and Kung Fu), where the action was always driven by heroic white men.
Is it weird that the show decided to cast the Indonesian Iko Uwais to play the Chinese Kai Jin? Is it weird that they try to explain it with a casual quip in the first five minutes of the show? Yes. Is it still significantly better than Iron Fist, a better action show than Arrow or Into the Badlands, and more fun than Justin Lin’s Warrior? So far it feels that way!
Wu Assassins started streaming on Netflix Friday and if you’re looking to just have a nice time and watch some silly TV with some great fights this weekend, you could do a lot worse.